Monday, October 20, 2014

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Health commissioner's fracking review to outlive tenure

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Health Commissioner Nirav Shah's decision to leave his post next month comes as his review of the health impacts of high-volume hydrofracking is still ongoing, with no end in sight.

Nevertheless, advocates on both sides of the controversial fracking issue expect the review to outlive Shah’s tenure at the department.

“The commissioner is taking a very thorough, scientific approach. The governor has said he’s going to make his decision based on that science and we certainly expect that work to continue,” said Conor Bambrick, of Environmental Advocates of New York.

Shah began the review more than a year and a half ago after the state Department of Environmental Conservation missed multiple deadlines to set a permitting process for hydrofracking, a controversial process used to extract natural gas from below ground.

At the time, Shah said his review would be finished in a a matter of weeks.

Supporters of high-volume fracking say the delay has put New York at a disadvantage compared to other states that allow the process.

“If the state of New York couldn’t figure out that doing hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale couldn’t be done in a safe way, in an environmentally prudent way, then it’s never going to figure it out,” said Unshackle Upstate executive director Brian Sampson.

At the same time, little light was shone on what exactly Shah would review when it comes to the health impacts of fracking. The lack of transparency bothered both the energy industry as well as environmentalists.

“The commissioner certainly had his approach. We definitely would like to see more public involvement if and when this study is completed. We still haven’t seen the results of his work and we’d like to see what the department is going to produce going forward,” Bambrick said.

The news of Shah’s resignation, due to take effect in May, came as Republican candidate for governor Rob Astorino called on the commissioner to step down in part because of the hydrofracking delay. In an online video, Astorino accused Shah of doing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s political bidding.

“The state health commissioner is doing Governor Cuomo’s political bidding in delaying a decision through his election, but isn’t the state health commissioner supposed to be the state’s chief medical officer, not a political foil for Governor Cuomo?” Astorino said.

A state official says Shah’s departure had been in the works for weeks and was unrelated to Astorino’s call that he step down. Shah, too, has insisted he was not taking directions from Cuomo when it came to the hydrofracking health review.

“He’s let me let science lead the way. He has not in any form impacted me and when I said I needed more time, he’s like, ‘okay, have more time,’” Shah said earlier this year.

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